So to be clear: if you are going to proceed with free flight, get a trainer. Do not go it alone, and don’t look to learn free flight from an online forum. You can’t learn free flight from reading.
That’s said, recall is just the most basic of foundations for free flight. It’s the beginning, not the end of it. You have to learn how new birds behave when confronted with unfamiliar wind patterns, you have to learn predatory behaviors for when raptors are most likely to be hunting, WHERE they are likely to be, you have to learn when NOT to fly.
Most of all, you have to make sure your bird is a proper candidate for free flight, which includes a vet exam to make sure there aren’t any medical conditions that would preclude active flight (heart issues, arthritis, etc).
There are many types of free flight, some of which do not focus on pure recall.
First of all - never attempt it without an experienced (and proven) trainer. There are many so-called trainers who have professional-looking YouTube videos. A YouTube channel does not make a trainer. And watching/reading a lot does not make an expert.
The free-flying professionals I know and respect are the ones who drill nonstop. The moment there's a hint of doubt in the ability of the bird, they focus and drill those potential weak points. And they never slack off - it's a daily practice for them. Not something you do on the weekends or skip every couple of days. You skip a couple of days of training, and your bird is a strong risk.
Recall is just the tip of the iceberg.
Here's my typical spiel about free flying:
Recall in the safety of your home is complete different from recall in a new place. Parrots get distracted by new environments. Your bird will likely be hesitant to recall in a new place. Even if you bring them out to socialise in new environments all the time, you will need to train your bird to be able to recall in new settings (many default to a freeze or flight).
Now, no bird is going to be bomb proof, but you have to train for anything you can think of. A batting cage sounds like a contained area, but what if it collapses, a bird dive bombs to attack, the spacing is large enough for your bird to dive through, etc? Even if you were in a gymnasium, what if the doors opened?
Those sudden sounds can spook a bird and send him out of range. A sudden light streaming in can also trigger a bird to fly. I know our little guy is alarmed when he hears crows and other birds of prey.
What if some idiot human starts distracting your bird? (Yes, I had a child throw a water bottle at Cairo before.)
These are all examples of sounds and distractions you need to train for.
Your bird is probably used to the height and safety of home. That means he might not know the basics of flight navigation - wind, steep descent, etc. You have to prepare him for the heights he might have to navigate from. It’s easy to go up, but it’s another to go down. A bird who doesn’t know how to descend steeply is likely to get stuck in a tree/rafter for hours or even days (yes, I’ve seen this happen).
This is contentious for some, but you have to read your bird’s body language. A domesticated bird don’t have the stamina of wild birds because they just don’t get the flight time. And if they fly in the house, it’s normally in short bursts (think a sprint versus a marathon). You need to train for a marathon. And tbh, it’s easy to tell if a bird is new - they don’t glide worth a beep. But you also need to learn how to not push your bird too hard. Cairo often flies to me, checking if he can land; I’ll wave and ask him to “keep going”; if he’s tired, he hovers like a helicopter and then I have him land immediately, but if he’s got a tiny bit of energy left, he’ll go for another loop around. Now, if you don’t establish this basic communication safely, your bird will land elsewhere.
You must never assume your bird is fully-trained and it’s a done deal. You must keep practicing as if your bird is untrained. People who think “oh, he’s fully-trained, we’ve done so many good flights” are also the most likely to lose their birds. You keep training the basics.
Other things to look up - boomerang, ascending, contact call, etc.
Do NOT attempt flight outside your home until you have established the basics of above. And when you step outside your home to conduct training, have your bird on a harness and start with recall that just requires your bird to HOP from training perch to your hand.
The free-flying community where I live also recommends never putting your bird on a perch other than the training perch or yourself. You do NOT want your bird to think that perching just randomly anywhere is safe - they do not have the instincts/experience of wild birds. They also recommend training your bird to recall to one person and one person ONLY. The more people your bird is trained to recall to, the higher the risk.
They also fly species that are more inclined for free-flying - species that bond stronger. With that, they often fly in pairs or groups. That way, if one bird gets lost, they'll be able to navigate back together or the owner will be able to bring around the homed bird to call out for its partner.
Birds of prey have snatched up large birds (I know of one African Grey) before while in their backyard in urban settings before. Can you train your bird to not get taken by a hawk? No.
Crows and other predators (including humans) have chased off birds before. I have seen bng macaws getting chased off by crows and lost forever. Can you train your bird to fend off a murder of crows? No.
In fact, one of the best trainers on the forum lost his bombproof macaws to a human flailing around with a ladder - the macaw took off and was taken by another human. Can you control your bird being spooked and avoid being taken in by another human? No.
My vet doesn't even take in ff-ers. They run too high a risk of picking up diseases, and she doesn't want to put her other patients at risk of catching a disease from the ff-ers (F10 can only take care of so much). It's a known but hush-hush fact in ff-ing communities that they catch and spread diseases through silent carriers. Can you train your bird not to catch a disease? No.
Free flying is pure training. That being said, all the pro free flyers will tell you:
If you do want to attempt flight out of your home, you must accept the fact that your bird might get lost.
Full stop. Period. This is a risk you must be aware of and must be willing to take. No matter how well-trained your bird is, you cannot account for everything (Murphy’s Law to live by). And these free-flying folks who say this even attach a $2k GPS tracker on their birds and still expect to lose them.
How Cairo does it
Some context on where I'm coming from: my bird was a free-flyer with his previous family. Thoroughly trained with a professional guiding Cairo's previous owner. And Cairo lives to fly - I could never take that away from him. We do fly outdoors on a harness and a Kevlar line in a park where it is not a claimed territory by any predator, except for humans who show up later in the day. There are predators that occasionally fly through, like crows and a few sea birds, but we don't fly when they're in the vicinity and the moment I see them, Cairo calls out to me and I recall him in. I keep in touch with my local ff-ing communities, and I respect that they have the ability to risk losing their bird to a variety of factors. While Cairo doesn't cost as much as the macaws and other birds they fly, he means too much to me to let go. And the moment Cairo shows signs of not keeping up with his training, I stop all outdoor flights (even if we always use a kevlar line) until he is solid again. I am incredibly strict on him for his own safety.
My position on this is to neither discourage nor encourage you, but to let you be aware of the risks and basic yet mandatory steps to take.
I have a question,
How can I start training recalls with macaw which is still on formula? I've trained my african gray with clicker and target, so he speaks words on cue, spins... because he is happy to do it for the treats.
But if a baby doesn't have treats, I guess I can't use clicker training.
One of my macaws is not weaned but she's fledged and does some flights at home (I don't plan to do free flight with her as I'm not going to be the end owner), but I'm wondering how can I do some recalls with her so I can get some experience with parrots at this age, so when my baby raises (it's now 2 months old) I know how It could react.
I always keep them safe as much as I can, I know free flying is a permanent risk. That's the reason I want to be prepared in advance.
Theoretically, yes, you can train him. The question is more of whether or not it is ethical and/or psychologically sound for the development of the bird.
I have seen some trainers use formula (in a syringe) as treats when teaching a fledging bird to recall. That being said, these trainers exist in cultures where force weaning is often seen as acceptable and normal.
So, is it psychologically ok for a baby bird to have to work for something that would ordinarily be given freely? In most countries, it's considered abuse or neglect if you deprive a child of food. And taking away that stability and sense of security from a young bird can have a long term psychological impact on a bird (just like force weaning does). Long term psychological impact can range from insecurity screaming to extreme neediness or even plucking.
She's just in formula right now.
And you are right, I'm not going to remove the formula to make it a treat. In order to wean properly she needs to feel is being fed without problem.
That's why I was asking, how could I start to train a bird who is not food motivated, maybe just with cuddles and being with me as a reinforcement or should I dismiss training her until she's completely weaned?
Yep, I have heard of training birds with positive reinforcement being something non-edible before. If you've a bird that loves scritches or cuddles, you can also use that as a positive reinforcer instead of treats. So long as you've a reward to draw the correlation that doing x results in positive reward, you can begin basic training.
As for the long-term success of such training, I don't have much info. But I do know that some trainers have tried such other methods with birds who aren't food-oriented. Worth a try